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McKenzie dominates, but Cross falls short

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James Wilkerson warned against it. Nydia Warner talked about it. Gordon McKenzie made up for it. Holy Cross was a lock to win the 400-meter relay on Saturday. Paul Jennings, Michael Johnson, Arron Warner and McKenzie had not lost a race all season. They had already qualified for the nationals in North Carolina, set a school-record in the 400 and won their section of the prestigious Penn Relays.

Someone should have just given them the trophy at the 77th CHSAA Outdoor City Championships at Mount St. Michael Academy.

But Wilkerson and Warner, Holy Cross’ wise and steady coaches, kept talking about the importance of handing the baton off cleanly, as if a tiny chink existed in their armor. So the race begins and what do you think happens? The runners fumble the baton in between the first and second legs, causing them to lose the lead and setting off a high-pitched shrill from the crowd.

Warner closed the gap on team leader Farrell, which led by 10 meters after three legs, but by the time McKenzie, who also plays varsity basketball for Holy Cross, collected the baton, the leader was already hurrying toward the finish line, angling around the final straightaway. McKenzie could only watch and dig in, eying his target like a hunter watching his prey.

The senior, who minutes earlier had scorched the competition in the 200-meter final, blew down the final straightaway, catching the leader with 50 meters to go and passing him like a race car driver against a student driver.

With 15 meters left, McKenzie let out a Howard Dean-like yelp, crossing the finish line with the clock reading 43.14. Farrell came in second at 43.82.

The performance was startling. McKenzie, a resident of South Ozone Park, had entered, if for only a few moments, that rarefied place known as “the zone.”

“I felt good this race,” said McKenzie, who won the 200 in 21.69. “I felt good the whole day. I went to bed early last night. I ate the right food. From when I woke up this morning I knew today would be a good day. I was a little nervous when we fell behind, but I liked that because it gave me something to run after.”

McKenzie’s day got even better when he was honored with the meet’s Outstanding Track and Field Athlete award, the same accolade he earned last week in the Brooklyn-Queens championships.

If McKenzie ended his day on a high, then Sean Lowe of St. John’s Prep probably wishes his day had ended before the 400-meter final.

The prohibitive favorite going into the 400, Lowe, a senior going to the University of Maryland on a full track scholarship, easily won the trials in 49.2 seconds. It seemed destined he would add an outdoor city championship to a resumé that already included 2003 and 2004 indoor championships in the 600 meters and the indoor record in the 300.

Lowe suffers from asthma, and to protect him from his condition his coach, George Cooksey, cuts back on his workouts by letting him rest in between runs. He never makes Lowe run back-to-back intervals.

On Saturday Lowe raced twice, but he had half a day to recover from his trial heat. Unfortunately, a nagging right hamstring that plagued him for much of the outdoor season was too much to overcome.

The honor student and Jamaica resident was in perfect position to make his usual late-race surge when he pulled up lame on the straightaway, finishing in third. As he crossed the finish line in 50.30, nearly two seconds behind the winner, Lowe swallowed huge gulps of air, his body giving in to the asthma, which worsens whenever he tenses up.

“I ran the race how I wanted it to go,” he said. “I was building speed after 300 meters, but then I pulled up, and I didn’t want to push myself during the straightaway. I’m disappointed, but I’m not mad. There are other races. I may have stretched too much before the race.”

“Today just wasn’t his day,” Cooksey said. “He just couldn’t put two races together.”

In team competition, Fordham Prep won its fourth straight CHSAA Championship with 43 points. Farell placed second with 42, and Holy Cross was the closest Queens school with 12 points, followed by Archbishop Molloy with 9 1/2.

Reach reporter Mitch Abramson by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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